Movie techniques making `reel' life loom larger on the screen

Real life has never been as real as this. The hapless moviegoer, knowing full well he sits motionless in a well-anchored theater, cannot help but grab for the arms of his seat and grit his teeth, trying to keep his head from rolling off his shoulders.

According to the five-story curved screen before him, he is careening wildly down a swerving, perilous mountain road, way too fast.

Larger-than-movies movie techniques like this IMAX system are getting closer to becoming a force in the movie industry. Rick Larson, senior vice-president of Glen Glenn Sound in Hollywood, says they are ``the wave of the future in theatrical entertainment.'' The aim is to provide a quality of experience so different that it can't be mimicked on a videocassette or cable TV.

Moviehouses have thrived in spite of dire warnings in the 1970s that videocassettes and cable television would make them obsolete. But the technical quality of television is gaining fast on cinemas.

The movie industry has introduced innovations before, with varying degrees of success. Movie screens became wider in the 1950s, when first faced with television competition -- and they stayed wide. But radical changes like Cinerama, which tripled screen width by using three cameras and three projectors, went the way of gimmicks like 3-D glasses.

Today's most promising innovations are in digital sound. Imagine a full orchestra playing loudly and distinctly, yet the moviegoer can hear the discreet, delicate sound of sugar sliding from spoon into cup.

``The layers of sound are not muddied up,'' says Glen Glenn Sound's Larson. ``The noise floor is so far below your hearing that there is no noise.''

So far, only the Disney classic ``Fantasia'' has been dubbed in all-digital sound.

A more radical technique is Showscan, a movie system developed by special-effects wizard Douglas Trumbull in the late '70s. Mr. Trumbull created the special effects for such movies as ``2001,'' ``Star Trek,'' and ``Close Encounters.''

Showscan is so lifelike that people watching it frequently say they feel like voyeurs, intruding on the lives of the people onscreen. A closeup can be overwhelming.

In May, Mr. Trumbull and theater owner Henry Plitt of Plitt Theaters formed the company Showscan to open 30 theaters worldwide in 1986 that use Trumbull's Showscan process.

The normal movie shows 24 frames per second, flashing each one twice. After extensive testing, Trumbull determined that the human eye detects the flicker of the projector at speeds up to 60 frames per second.

So Trumbull sped up cameras and projectors to that speed, using 70-mm frames (twice the width of the more typical 35-mm). He also shines more light through the film and uses a screen big enough so that the edges are just inside the viewer's peripheral vision.

Showscan impresses so much more visual information on the viewer, that some universities have shown interest in using it in teaching basic science courses, in order that viewers could more easily retain the information, according to Showscan president Peter Beale. The pictures are so detailed and vivid that they are easier to retain, he explains.

Showscan is just now planning for a first feature-length movie using the process. Showscan has not yet developed a commerical track record.

IMAX is an older system than Showscan. Developed by a Canadian company more than a decade ago, it uses 70-mm film sideways, so that the frame is actually three times the size of the Showscan frame. It is projected at normal speed onto the mammoth 50- by 70-foot screen, giving stunning detail of wide vistas.

IMAX is building from five to seven new theaters a year currently worldwide (one of the oldest is in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington), but none is commercial.

``TV very soon will be able to mimick what film can do,'' says Mr. Beale, ``so if we're going to get people to pay more for the collective experience of the cinema, then we have to give them more.''

Many analysts are skeptical of innovations like Showscan and IMAX. They are most effective ``at the base of Niagara Falls looking up,'' says Art Murphy, cinema professor at the University of Southern California.

But most movies don't take place in sweeping, dramatic settings, he notes. `` `Kramer vs. Kramer' took place in a living room. . . . Looking at people 40 feet tall is not as appealing as [looking at] the Grand Canyon.''

Cost is another problem. Steve Hill, an entertainment industry consultant, sees the new movie systems as too expensive for studios already facing a consolidation in the next few years. Beale estimates that shooting a full-length movie in Showscan would add 10 percent to its production costs.

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